Originally published on GameInformer.com August 19, 2016, at 5:00 PM.
Selected for Blog Herding -- The Best Blogs of the Community, 8/25/16.
4,108 views as of June 4, 2018.
Update 6/4/18: Select screenshots from this pictorial appear at bottom.
One doesn't play No Man's Sky as much as manage it. Think space exploration sim more than space adventure and you get the idea. The thrill of discovery is what motivates gamers beyond the tedium of resource management, though it's possible that over time that thrill might diminish.
The overall impression (I accidentally typed "limpression!") is one of enormity but also in comparison, and more importantly, relative insignificance. Like all explorers, you can observe and catalog sometimes fantastic discoveries, yet you leave little mark beyond the vital resources you gather to sustain your journey.
And this is the fundamental conundrum at the heart of Hello Games' ambitious undertaking. The game succeeds at instilling the sense of wonder and danger that would accompany a galactic expedition, but risks compromising that with mundane details, contrived scenarios and often barren settings.
The first time I began the game (yep, I restarted a couple times), I awoke on a desolate, inhospitable world. But what killed me was my own carelessness as I presumed the game's ubiquitous sentinels would only defend a planet's fauna. WRONG. Nonstop mining lead to a quick, overwhelming response that ended me.
Worse, it also ended my play session, as the game crashed and required about a half dozen attempts before I was able to reboot on an even more barren planet. Then, however, I had second thoughts about using my preorder promotional ship, whose hyperdrive prevents finding the related blueprint necessary for building said equipment in new ships.
But the third time proved the charm as I ended up on a relatively more inviting world with a variety of interesting flora and fauna above ground (above), not to mention long, colorful, luminescent caverns below ground (below) that reminded me of the same in series like The Elder Scrolls. The one notable exception is the lack of intelligent life.
The most common form of "intelligent" life are the AI sentinels that patrol every world (above, top), but interaction is related to observation or attack. One option that would help deepen gameplay and reduce the tedium of resource management, is if such sentinels could be hacked, provided there was a related upgrade in the game.
A hacking minigame a la BioShock could enable these roving bots to work for you, whether scanning resources over a wider range then your equipment allows, or protecting you against hostile drones or predators. It would vary action, speed up processes and add entertainment value.
Gamers will encounter intelligent species (above) in space stations and seemingly on every celestial body, inhabiting shelters, outposts, space ports, etc. In my experience, without exception, these creatures -- like your character -- lead solitary lives as sole operators of their habitats, including spacecraft.
To me, this is odd and represents an opportunity. In the vast expanse of space, it only makes sense to have redundant systems, whether equipment or their operators. In the game world, more creatures can provide drama, comedy or, importantly, practical gameplay options. I suggest a recruit ability to build your own crew.
The immediate impact, as in Bethesda titles like TES or Fallout, is to have someone that has the inventory capacity to carry additional items for you and also can back you up when necessary, whether defending you or attacking in concert. The former option alone can dramatically improve gameplay efficiency.
Likewise, upgrading one's crew to include even more members (think Freedom Fighters) as you obtain larger vessels allows potentially more resource gathering or at least more combat options while in flight. In this way, the dynamic of the game can change over time as you and your crew/vessel grow.
Yes, this can fundamentally change the tenor of No Man's Sky, but over time. As you invest more time and effort in the game, you get more in return, rather than encountering the same general gameplay from beginning to end. Nevermind that I think it's just more realistic to begin with.
One related benefit is hiring someone who can help translate a language. This likewise would make learning language more efficient instead of relying on finding scattered landmarks that impart a word here and there. Plus the option to have regular dialog (and dialog trees) could add more story or entertainment value.
As is, I do appreciate the inclusion of other spacefaring souls to interact with, whether attempting communication (sometimes comically) or trading. It also allows you to upgrade your ship, receive equipment or loot, and learn new words. But it's no Mass Effect, nor does it intend to be.
Indeed the solitude of each creature emphasizes the often lonely existence of those inhabiting outposts or undertaking expeditions. This perception is reinforced by some of the observations you make during such encounters. But it also highlights the need for more populous areas on occasion.
Ruins, monoliths and other cultural landmarks (above, below) add a measure of depth and context to your isolated encounters. Like your discussions with other beings, you can be given the opportunity to interact with found artifacts. This involves a choice of action, each with its own consequence, though in my experience they're not significant.
These add another element of discovery and mystery, not to mention gameplay options, and are therefore appreciated on those merits. But as with other areas of the game, there are missed opportunities. For instance, adding puzzles to such landmarks or artifacts would help broaden activity in the game, as well as increase the entertainment value.
Such puzzles or other gameplay options would not be included just for the sake of variety, as they are not unexpected for landmarks imbued with a sense of cultural significance as these often are. Puzzles would serve to protect their secrets or important artifacts from interlopers or scavengers.
Some landmarks encase revelations (SPOILER above, bottom). I hesitate to label it a spoiler, as its significance so far appears to be limited or at least just not yet revealed. But given the threadbare narrative (note that I am not following the Atlas path in the game), such tidbits of information are a welcome addition.
The one above provided an interesting twist on my relations with the species, and made me question my affiliation with them, though again the implications are unclear. Of course, as other commentators have pointed out, a more dedicated narrative (presuming the Atlas path is not that) would help add a great deal of drama and investment in the game.
Landmarks can be found seemingly on every planet and perhaps celestial body in general and, like the worlds themselves, can exhibit a variety of design choices that add to the game's aesthetic. Why I've only found barren or semi-arid solar systems I don't know, but others appear to enjoy much more lush locales. In any event, I enjoy the architectural choices I've seen thus far.
Hostile spacecraft start making routine appearances seemingly after you begin warping through the cosmos. I tend to avoid such encounters at this point because I'm typically outgunned either due to sheer numbers or quality of weapons or defenses. My only encounter had me destroy one ship but take heavy damage and have to flee to the planet surface.
There are distress beacons that are activated upon hostiles' arrival, but I haven't responded to one yet. Still, these are some of those contrived scenarios I mentioned (besides, for instance, every single spacecraft having no fuel or working hyperdrive and, apparently, just barely limping in to a spaceport or space station).
The fact that hostiles now tend to appear whenever I enter a planet's orbit, and actually warp right to my location the moment that happens, feels a little too convenient. It's one thing if after an encounter they had managed to put a tracking device on my ship, but my lack of interaction with them precludes such an explanation.
The one dogfight I engaged in demonstrated relatively responsive controls, targeting and hit detection. It wasn't completely smooth or intuitive, but also wasn't difficult or frustrating. Combat felt like a happy medium that, with more experience, might prove second nature. At least I haven't read of any complaints in this area.
Like the sometimes sensational flora, fauna comes in all shapes and sizes. Discoveries in this field are some of the most entertaining and enjoyable finds and, like overall planetary ecosystems in general, are a prime motivation for progressing through the universe. The creature above was like an angry Hit Girl puppy dog that actually made me feel sorry for having to kill it.
Over time one finds variations on a theme with regard to flora and fauna, and the above creature differed from another (I think on a different planet) by virtue of its horn and growths on its shielded back. Actually seeing the variation is interesting in the context of evolution (or more precisely the programming formulas that led to their existence).
Some creatures truly defy description, however, and the one above was possibly the most bizarre I've found. It had a perfect round purple ball head with spherical white eyes and a cone-shaped protrusion (I couldn't tell if it was a nose, mouth or both, or neither!), a kind of chicken's body and appendages minus the wings, a prehistoric sail on its back, and an I don't know what kind of tail.
Sometimes creatures' habitat can exhibit almost as much, if not more, character than the animals themselves. The above setting found the animal moving through a kind of weird pumpkin patch with large, peculiarly shaped lava-rock composite formations and seemingly molten cores beneath their sheltering arches.
Some predators can give you a start as you try and figure out what exactly is attacking you. Like the above oddball critters, creatures can resemble mythological Chimeras in their peculiar combination of features seemingly taken at random from other more familiar species. I believe in such cases the technical term is "mut," though I settled on "Sorbinius Agravatid" for one (top) thanks to its unfriendly disposition.
The best discoveries are just plain goofy like the above planet, where inhabitants were big, boxy creatures that bounced, scooted or floated across the surface. Some resembled green land-based jellyfish, potatoes with leafy hair and a single center stalk (think Alfalfa of Little Rascals), an organic vacuum cleaner attachment with over-sized regal collar, and a sack of protruding eyeballs with horn crown.
Likely the most graceful animal I've encountered is the kind of airborne giant eel that floats elegantly across alien skies (above). Despite having a head that mostly closely resembles the burrowing predators of Tremors, these flying creatures travel in pairs, are benign and are an impressive site above any vista.
Even relatively barren planets can still have beautiful and varied landscapes as well as flora and fauna. This is the real draw of Hello Games' storied procedural generation behind No Man's Sky. The variety, mystery and wonder of each ecosystem and every interaction fuels one's curiosity and determination to reach each new celestial body.
The fact that there are glitches, especially in a game this expansive and complex on some levels, is not unexpected and do occur (whether the crash I experienced at the start, or various graphical and sometimes gameplay snafus since then -- see above and below). But the technical achievement of this title, in particular by such a small design team, is awe-inspiring in its own right.
The one gameplay goof I experienced since the beginning crash involved my attempting to launch my spacecraft from the ground of one planet. Immediately the vessel stalled and shook violently in place no matter which direction I turned it. Trying to land proved impossible so after a minute or so I managed to hop out, injuring myself on the way.
I searched the terrain for my ship and began to panic when I couldn't find it anywhere, until I look up at the stone pillar nearby and saw my craft on the top edge. Thankfully, my jet pack got me within boarding reach and I was able to then fly off the planet surface, but it left me wondering what I could have done had I not have been able to reach it.
Adding insult to injury, I had a similar experience, though this time of my own making as I landed on top of a large plant. Landing can be a guessing game as there is no corresponding view of your landing area, though I take responsibility for this embarrassment. This kind of repeat performance made me wonder if designers purposely limited such structures to jet pack heights. : D
After visiting multiple planets I had little luck finding significant reserves of Emeril so took my time plundering pillars of gold on one planet I came across. There is actually method to the madness, as carving a hole in the bottom not only provides shelter from caustic elements but also from the prying "eye" of policing sentinels.
The problem with mining in general, and giant pillars or other substantial mineral deposits in particular, is how tedious the process can become. As with Mass Effect 2's planet scanning feature, the process can be long and boring. Worse, it can be dangerous. I fell asleep mining towers of Emeril on a subsequent planet.
Imagine my panic when I awoke without any of the resources I had gathered or mined despite having spent an hour or two engaged in just such an effort. I knew my exosuit and life support must have whittled away from neglect against the elements, leaving me exposed to the punishing elements. I rebooted the game's first of two prior saves, forgetting I could retrieve resources from my "grave."
While another of my goofs, this episode highlights the need to streamline this process, make other routines more efficient, and also vary and expand gameplay opportunities. It's easy to say, of course, and takes nothing away from what Hello Games accomplished with this ambitious -- and impressive -- title.
It might seem like I'm a critic, but in fact I'm a big fan of No Man's Sky. I can't wait to explore more of the cosmos, discover countless new species and habitats, and dive deeper into this imaginative setting. And it's because I enjoy what I have played that I'd love to see updates to enhance the experience in general.
In my opinion, No Man's Sky is a good game, and highly recommended for what has been accomplished. For explorers like me, it's practically a must play. With some tweaks here and there, it can broaden it's appeal and create an even deeper and more satisfying gaming experience. In the meantime, I will happily lose myself in its grandeur.
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